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Mike Tharp: Merced College our own college

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

Next Friday, Diane Spork and her son, Joshua, 21, will walk across a stage at Merced College. President Ben Duran will hand each of them a diploma. Mother and son will both get their associate of arts degrees.

"He wants to be a history teacher," says the Los Banos native. "Now I can make sure he goes to college."

Diane has worked full-time at the community college since 2000, after first enrolling as a student there in 1995.

"Merced College has given me a life and a livelihood," she says.

That same evening Rose Seaborn, a high school dropout, will make the same walk across the same stage. She'll also get a diploma from Merced College. At one point in her life she was homeless and pregnant, "staying in scummy hotels and shacks." For six seasons she worked as a tomato dispatcher. Her boss told her she was smart. She ought to go to college.

Instead, along came another baby. Then she was pregnant yet again, this time delivering pizzas. One week her paycheck was $67. That same week she spent $80 on gas.

"I knew I had to do something fast," she recalls." So she signed up for Merced College. Two financial aid programs began to pay the bills as she took classes full time and got good grades.

The single mother of three admits that "society doesn't always believe in people like me, but I'm here to prove to society I'm not one to be given up on."

Corinne Mead already has graduated from Merced College. She spent four years there after attending community college in Modesto and Cal State Stanislaus. She got both an A.A. and an A.S. degree at Merced College.

While she was there, studying to be a radiologic technologist, she was struck by an idea. She noticed the pain some elderly patients suffered when they had to have part of their pelvis bone X-rayed. She researched more deeply and came up with a way to take the X-rays from a different, less painful view. It wasn't in any of the textbooks she'd consulted.

"I came up with a name for it" in 1997, she says. Now 48, she's a radiologic technologist at Modesto's Sutter Gould Medical Foundation.

These stories remind us that there are two institutions of higher learning in Merced County. A national spotlight recently shone on UC Merced because Michelle Obama was commencement speaker for its first four-year class of 517 graduates.

But just a little southwest of the UC campus, Merced College quietly has become a haven for students who need its special blend of practical classes, caring teachers, aid packages and a staff and administrators who go out of their way to help all of its 10,000 full-time students.

Duran notes that UC schools take the top 12 percent of applicants; the Cal State system the top 30 percent.

"We take the top 100 percent," he says. "We take anyone who comes through the door qualified for community college." Statewide, that totals 2.7 million people.

The California budget provides $18,000 a year for each UC student, $12,000 for each Cal State student and around $9,000 for each K-12 student. Community colleges get about $4,500 per head.

"We're the least funded," Duran says. "But we don't stop enrollment."

Anne Newins, vice president of student personnel at the college, observes that more students transfer back to community colleges than the number who transfer to four-year schools. She looks out the window of the president's office, where a long line of mostly young people wait to sign up for classes next semester.

"Every one of those students has a challenge," she says.

She estimates Merced College probably has 14,000 students in credit classes, plus another 6,000 taking other courses. Now there are more than 1,000 full-timers at its Los Banos campus.

"We're embedded in the fabric of this community," Duran adds, figuring that out of 140,000 adults in Merced County, 20,000 of them are somehow affiliated with Merced College.

Average age: 27 to 28. That means a lot of them are in their 30s and 40s. Merced College students have transferred to some 90 four-year institutions around the country.

Duran himself is walking, talking proof that the California community college system has served as a launching pad for tens of thousands of successful careers. After he graduated from Los Banos High School, he went straightaway to Merced College. He got his A.A. there, then a B.A. at Cal State Stanislaus, a master's at Chapman University and a Ph.D. at USC.

Besides teaching people like Corinne Mead a highly technical skill, the college offers classes and other activities to senior centers around the county.

Its hacky-sack club goes to area high schools, preaching the virtues of real workouts versus virtual games. Since 2001 the college has made a special effort to reach out to military veterans returning to the county.

"It's a way to transform our work force," Newins explains, "and help them become more focused, productive citizens."

English as a Second Language courses and a plan to help newly released inmates take useful classes also bolster Merced College's emphasis that it is a "community" college.

One of Duran's major influences has been Uri Treisman, now a mathematics professor at the University of Texas and a former MacArthur Fellow. Over a long and varied career, Treisman at one point taught math and science in south central Los Angeles, mainly to black and Latino students.

In a paper he wrote after that experience, he captures some of Duran's own thoughts and goals about Merced College:

"The time has come to re-examine undergraduate instruction and to make it more responsive to the needs of today's students. We can no longer offer courses that half of our students fail, nor can we lower our standards. The challenge is to reconfigure undergraduate science and mathematics education in ways that will inspire students to make the choices we have made. This can happen only if we change the boundaries of faculty responsibility. It is the faculty that must take the lead."

Says Duran, "His work still resonates with me."

Just as Merced College resonates with our entire community.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2427 or